Men’s hockey finishes tough regular season with signs of improvement
After a deflating 5-0 home loss to UW-Superior a few weeks ago, the Falcons knew they had to respond differently on the road in Superior, according to Eddie Matsushima, a junior captain for the UW-River Falls men’s hockey team.
“We altered our mindset a bit because they laughed us off the ice,” Matsushima said. “We played with an edge against Superior. With it being towards the end of the season, you have that ‘win or you’re done’ mindset.”
The Falcons came away with a 4-1 win on the road at Superior behind Matsushima’s second hat trick of the year. Matsushima was named WIAC player of the week for his performance.
“All the credit goes to (my line mates),” Matsushima said. “I definitely got kind of lucky, because nothing was a clean shot. All three hit the goalie and went in, but sometimes you need that.”
Matsushima added two goals in the second period and one goal in the third, with all of them assisted by sophomore Aussie Miller. Matsushima now has 14 goals and 9 assists through 22 games this season.
The team was on their toes and sharper in everything they did in the second matchup, head coach Steve Freeman said.
“We possessed the puck more and played better defensively and got a great game out of (goalie) Zach Quinn,” Freeman said. “It’s individual mistakes and breakdowns that hurt you, and we eliminated those and that gave us a better chance at success.”
The team returned home for their last regular season game against UW-Stout on Saturday. The game ended at a 2-2 tie, only a few days after the Falcons lost to the Blue Devils 3-1 in Menomonie.
“It was a fast game that went up and down, and we got more involved physically than we have in the past,” Freeman said. “That’s a real positive, because it becomes evident with our lack of depth. We’ve lost nine games by one goal this year.”
Instead of only forcing Stout to a tie, the Falcons were still pressuring the Blue Devils late into the third period and overtime, with chances to win the game.
“We came out and played pretty well, but it was just a matter of guys finding the net,” Matsushima said. “We were fighting the puck a bit and the bounces don’t go our way.”
The Falcons were “fighting the puck” by having a lot of chances and things that should go in but just weren’t on that particular night. Matsushima said this could come from simply nerves or trying to score as many times as the previous game (like his hat trick).
The Falcons finished their regular season at 7-15-3 overall and 1-6-1 in the WIAC. They will match up with UW-Superior again when they travel to Superior for a two-game series on Friday and Saturday in the four versus five matchup in the WIAC tournament, also known as the Commissioner’s Cup.
One of the biggest challenges with this team’s season has been the number of new players and injuries, Freeman said. The difference in their systems is also very different from junior hockey.
Cayden Cahill, a freshman from Alaska with 10 goals and 10 assists in 25 games, has been one of the standout freshman on this young Falcons team. Beyond the adjustment from going back to school, where most juniors players start their freshman year of college at 21, there are other aspects of DIII hockey that make the transition difficult.
“It’s a lot faster and there’s more hitting and body checking,” Cahill said. “System-wise, it’s more of a man on man kind of thing in juniors. Here we play systems and you stay in your own little space.”
With 16 new freshman, Freeman said the learning curve has been steep. However, the perseverance he’s seen over the season makes him say that he believes it will pay dividends in the near future.
“I think we’re a recruiting class away from being back in the championship hunt next year,” Freeman said.
Without the excellent way the older players have stepped up this season, Freeman said it could have looked much difference at this stage.
“Our veteran players have really led the way and I have a lot of respect for how they’ve handled the season,” Freeman said. “This is with them being some of the better players in the league, and they work and lead by example.”
Cahill thinks the team is coming into their stride at the proper time. Although both of the first two Superior games were lopsided road victories for both teams, he said that this weekend will likely look different.
“There’s gonna be a lot more sacrificing of the body to stop shots,” Cahill said. “It’s about who’s going to put their nose in there, because nobody wants to go home a loser.”
Matsushima also said he assumes it will be a tight series, especially with the way they answered the call the last time the Falcons came out on top.
“I wouldn’t expect anything less than a hard fought battle from them this time,” Matsushima said.
Both Cahill and Matsushima said they think the Falcons still have the potential to make a run at the WIAC postseason title due to their improvement from the first time they played most of their WIAC foes.
“I think we can take the WIAC if we put our mind and our heart into it,” Cahill said. “It’s going to pay a heavy price, but we have to all buy in.”
“That’s the beauty of it,” Matsushima added. “In the playoffs, everybody is beatable.”